By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist Photo courtesy of CARICOS
They sure went to a lot of trouble — and expense.
You’ve probably read about the new Ford F-150. That it has an aluminum body and is now much lighter (by some 700 pounds) than its steel-bodied predecessor. It also has much smaller engines — for the most part — than its rivals, including the tiniest (but strongest) V6 available in a full-size pick-up. Just 2.7 liters — not much larger than most current fours — but making 325 hp and 375 ft.-lbs. of torque (within range of the Chevy Silverado’s 5.3 liter V8, which makes 355 hp and 383 ft.-lbs. of torque).
But why go to all this trouble?
Buyers weren’t clamoring for aluminum bodywork — or really little engines made temporarily big on-demand via multiple turbos.
It was the government’s fuel efficiency edicts (CAFE) that are responsible for all this.
They are set to ratchet up to 35.5 MPG on average next year (2016). That is a high bar — and every little bit matters. Because the mileage returned by an individual vehicle is not what’s relevant for CAFE purposes. It’s the overall mileage of an automaker’s fleet — all the vehicles it sells each year, averaged out. When you’re dealing with that kind of volume, a 2-3 MPG difference (and that’s all we’re talking about here) times several hundred thousand vehicles — which is how many F-150s Ford sells each year — matters a whole lot.
But does a 2-3 MPG difference — either way — matter that much to the individual buyer?
As opposed to the prospect of potentially much higher repair (and so, insurance) costs due to the aluminum bodywork? Which will require special (separate) facilities and higher-order skills to repair?
As opposed to the potential down-the-road repair/maintenance — possibly, replacement — costs for a high-strung little engine with a pair of turbos hanging off each cylinder bank?
Ford has taken a bold as hell risk here. Whether it pays off remains to be seen.
WHAT IT IS
The F-150 is Ford’s full-size (1500) pick-up truck, the best-selling such truck on the market and the best-selling vehicle in the United States.
One of the reasons for that being the almost-unlimited combinations Ford offers. There are about 40 different configurations of the F-150, ranging from the base XL regular cab with 2WD and 6.6 foot bed (MSRP $26,030) all the way up to a Platinum Super Crew 4×4 (MSRP $55,305).
The F-150 competes most directly with the Chevy Silverado 1500 ($26,105 to start for a base “work truck” — $51,150 for a High Country Crew Cab 4×4) and the Dodge Ram ($25,660 for the base Tradesman — $50,990 for a 4×4 Longhorn).
These two are also offered in dozens of possible cab/bed combos — and the Ram is available with a powerful turbo-diesel engine, something neither the Ford nor the Chevy currently offer in their 1500 trucks.
The huge news is the F-truck’s all-aluminum body — which lower’s the truck’s curb weight by more than 700 pounds.
Equally daring, Ford is moving away from V8s.
You can still order one — but it’s only one of four available F-truck powerplants — and the other three are all V6s.
It’s also not the most powerful engine you can order in the F-truck.
That one’s also a V6.
This is a major point of difference between the Ford and its GM and Chrysler rivals — which also offer six cylinder engines, but mostly as their base engines (the exception here being the turbo-diesel V6 available in the Ram 1500) with V8s being the top-dog engines in those trucks.
The ’15 F-150 also gets (or offers) a number of technology and safety upgrades, including a remote-view trailer assist system, Lane Departure warning, Adaptive Cruise Control and a larger (optional) eight-inch “productivity” touchscreen in the center stack.
Alloy body reduces weight — and unsprung mass.
Turbo V6s make impressive power — and more low-end torque than most V8s.
Pop-out step ladder and grab pole make it easier to climb up and into the bed.
“Pillarless” design (four door models) gives open access to the entire cab.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Aluminum body will be more difficult — and expensive — to repair. This will likely make the F-truck more expensive to insure.
Turbo V6s don’t give you massively better gas mileage than the more powerful — and simpler — V8s available in the Silverado and Ram.
Bed is too tall — even for tall people (a problem in all current 1500 pick-ups).
“PIllarless” doors require the front doors be opened first before you can open the rear doors.
UNDER THE HOOD
Ford sees little — if any — future for the V8. Not as a mass-market engine. And not because truck buyers don’t want them (they do, very much so) but because the federal government is systematically making it economically not-viable — via “gas guzzler” fines — to offer them for sale as other than very low-volume (and very high-priced) curiosities. When the 35.5 MPG CAFE standard kicks in next year, GM and Dodge buyers may be looking at paying more for their trucks because those trucks won’t make the CAFE cut.
But here’s a Weird Fact:
Ford’s new family of small-displacement — and turbocharged — V6 engines don’t use much less gas than the V8s in rivals trucks.
The base V6 offered in the F-truck displaces 3.5 liters and makes 283 hp and 255 ft-lbs. of torque. It delivers 18 city, 25 highway (2WD versions).
The Chevy Silverado’s base V6 is a larger 4.3 liter mill that makes 285 hp and (here’s the one to watch) 305 ft-lbs. of torque. It rates 18 city, 24 highway (2WD) a difference without a distinction.
The Dodge Ram 1500 comes standard with a 3.6 liter V6 that makes 305 hp and 269 ft.-lbs. of torque. Mileage is 17 city, 25 highway (2WD) — another difference without a distinction.
But now things get really interesting.
The F-truck’s first upgrade engine is a tiny V6 — just 2.7 liters. This is the smallest V6 engine you’ll find in any 1500 truck or for that matter, any current passenger car. The 2.7 liter six is about the same size as most current fours. But — with its twin turbochargers force-feeding it air — the power it produces is in V8 territory: 325 hp and a very impressive 375 ft.-lbs. of torque.
However, gas mileage is something of a letdown — given all this effort: Just 19 city, 26 highway. These are good numbers for a big truck. But nothing spectacular when compared with other big trucks — powered by much bigger V8s.
The Silverado’s next-up engine, for instance, is a 5.3 liter V8 that makes 355 hp and 383 ft.-lbs. of torque. EPA gives it a 16 city, 23 highway rating (2WD versions; with 4×4, the number dips to 16 city, 22 highway).
The “EcoBoost” 2.7 liter-equipped F-truck does a little better. But three MPGs is not by any measure an epic improvement. The Chevy 5.3 V8 might drink a bit more fuel, but it’s not gonna break the bank. And you get 20 more hp (and 8 ft.-lbs. more torque) as part of the deal.
The Ram 1500 steps up with a 395 hp 5.7 liter “Hemi” V8 that also makes the most torque — by far: 410 ft.-lbs.
And the Hemi’s gas mileage is — again — not all that much worse than the much less powerful 2.7 liter Ford’s:
14 city, 20 highway (2WD).
This is a wider spread vs. the GM 5.3 V8, but consider the Ram’s power stats.
If you want both mileage and power, Dodge also offers — uniquely — a 3 liter turbo-diesel that makes even more torque than the Hemi V8 (420 ft.-lbs.) and pulls down 20 city, 28 highway — better than the 2.7 Ford’s numbers.
You can still get a V8 in the F-truck.
It is a fairly small 5 liter mill (much smaller than rival’s V8s) that makes exactly the same hp (385) as the Chevy’s “middle” 5.3 V8 and less than the Ram’s 5.7 liter Hemi — and less torque (387 ft.-lbs.) than both of them.
Its gas mileage is not bad, though: 15 city, 22 highway (2WD). Once again, not much of a penalty — to you, the buyer — for going with the V8 over the turbo’d twice V6.
The Max Effort engine in the F-truck is an “Ecoboosted” (turbocharged, times two) version of the 3.5 liter V6. It tops out at 365 hp (20 hp less than the 5.0 V8) but makes 420 ft.-lbs. of torque. Which sounds meaty enough. Until you compare those numbers with the Silverado’s top engine. It’s a 6.2 liter V8 that beats the poor Ford into submission with 420 hp (if you’re counting, that’s a 55 hp difference in favor of the Chevy) and an equally big-bicep’d 460 ft.-lbs. of torque.
Turbos? We don’t need no stinkin’ turbos!
But how does the mileage of these two stack up? As it turns out, it’s pretty damned close.
The burly Chevy rates 15 city, 21 highway with either 2WD or 4WD vs. 17 city, 24 highway for the Ford’s Ecoboosted 3.5 liter V6. We are looking at a difference of 2 MPG in town and 3 on the highway — which is not much even if exactly accurate and probably a wash in real-world driving.
I’ll get into that shortly.
Regardless of the engine you pick, all the F-truck’s available engines are paired with a six-speed automatic that has Tow and Sport modes. One reason for the not-so-spectacular mileage may be due to this fact. The Silverado and Ram both come with more efficient eight-speed automatics.
You can, of course, go 2WD or 4WD with any of these trucks. Real 4WD. With a two-speed transfer case and Low range gearing.
Ford claims the highest tow rating — 12,200 lbs. with the twin-turbo 3.5 V6. But the Chevy (with 6.2 V8) is a very close second at 12,000 lbs.
The Ram 1500 is — by far — the weakest of the three in terms of rated pulling power: Just 10,650 lbs. when ordered with the Hemi V8.
ON THE ROAD
All three of the Big Three’s trucks now have standard engines that are stronger than their biggest/baddest V8s used to be once upon a time. And with their best V8s (or, as in the case of the F-truck, best V6) they are 4×4 Ferraris.
Well, maybe not in the curves.
But in a straight line? The F-150 with its middleweight 2.7 twin-turbo engine can cut the rug (0-60) in 6.4 seconds. Notch that down to just a bit over six flat with the 3.5 twin turbo. This is about two seconds quicker to 60 than Magnum, PI’s Ferrari 308.
There’s a reason why, in the opening credits of the show, Magnum has to do a burnout on the grass.
The difference between the turbo V6 Ford and its big V8 rivals is the Ford kind of tiptoes to 60, almost like a magic carpet ride — — while the V8 Silverado and Ram 1500 bellow like berserkers. If you close your eyes (well, do this as a passenger) you can almost hear the secondaries of the four barrel carbs opening. Yes, yes… they’re fuel injected (direct injected, for the Chevy) but the echoes of SS 454s gone by echo through the ages.
The Ford reminds me of other Silent Bob performers I’ve driven — like the GMC Syclone of the ’90s (if you remember that one). It was also a six-cylinder turbo — and definitely got the job done.
Both Ecoboost V6s have tremendous — though not quite as tremendous — torque as their bigger-engined rivals. The difference being the turbo’d engines’ torque is more readily accessed because it’s available lower in the RPM band. The 2.7 V6, for instance, makes its peak torque (375 ft.-lbs.) at 3,000 RPM while the much larger 5.3 V8 that’s the equivalent “step up” engine in the Chevy Silverado makes pretty much the same torque (383 ft.-lbs.) but not until 4,100 RPM.
And the Ford’s top-dog engine — the 3.5 liter twin-turbo — makes its mondo 420 ft.-lbs. at just 2,500 RPM while the Chevy’s big gun 6.2 V8 doesn’t make its peak (460 ft.-lbs.) until 4,100 RPM.
The Ford thus pulls a little harder with less apparent effort down low and in the mid-range (probably, this accounts for the slightly higher max tow rating) kind of like a diesel engine, which in a very real sense is what these twin-turbo’d sixes were designed to emulate — but the V8 Chevy and Ram pull stronger once the revs build and if you keep your foot down. They also sound more truck-appropriate. That healthy booming roar of a big V8 can’t be replicated by a little six… no matter how powerful that six may be.
I’m a little worried about the Ford’s six-speed automatic — and not just because it’s got two fewer gears than its rivals’ eight-speed automatics, which probably costs the Ford 2-3 MPG (ironic, given the lengths to which Ford went to improve the truck’s gas mileage). It may just have been my test truck — which like all test trucks farmed out to car jockey journalists, has likely lived a life as brutal as a $20 a throw Vegas “escort.” But for whatever reason, it sometimes made a hideous clunking sound that reminded me of how my ’78 Camaro’s transmission sounded after I neutral dropped it back in high school.
If it was just my press truck, ok. It very well could be. Can’t hold it against Ford if a press truck got abused by a journalist (not me, the guy who had it before me).
But if this is a general problem with Ford’s six-speed automatic, there is going to be hell to pay.
AT THE CURB
The visual differences between the new, aluminum-bodied F-150 and its steel-bodied predecessor are more subtle. Remember the melting stick of butter look Ford tried back in the ’90s?
Getting people to accept turbo’d V6s over big V8s is a steep-enough hill to climb. Ford wisely decided to keep the ’15 F-truck’s looks safely traditional. Meaning, it looks like a truck. An American truck. Squared-off and hunky. Flannel shirts and jeans. Texans will approve.
There are some fairly radical design aspects, however.
These include a pillarless cab on four door models. With all four doors open, the cab’s interior is wide open. No upright I-beam in between. The rear doors are hinged at the rear — and open forward — latching onto the front doors when closed. The upside is total access to the cab with all four doors open. The downside is that the rear doors cannot be opened separately. The front doors must be opened first. Which means backseat passengers cannot get in and out independently. This may or may not be of concern to you.
Because bed walls are so high these days — in all 1500s, not just the Ford — it’s hard for even tall geeks like me to access the bed without a step ladder. Which Ford thoughtfully provides — along with a vertical grab bar — both of them built into the tailgate. Press the black button on the top panel and the step ladder folds down. Push the yellow button and out pops the vertical grab bar, which telescopes in and out. This is not just neat, it’s damn near essential for people not at least six feet tall — and limber.
The cab is significantly wider now — by about two inches — and this noticeably improves shoulder and hip room, especially when three large guys are riding side-by-side in the back. If you check the specs, you’ll find there’s more hip room in the second row than there is up front — 64.7 inches up front vs. 64.7 in the back.
This is true in the Silverado and Ram, too.
The Silverado has the most generous legroom up front (45.3 inches vs. 43.9 for the Ford and 41 for the Ram 1500) but the F-truck’s 43.6 inches of second row legroom (crew cab models) is two inches more than in the Chevy (41 inches) and about three inches more than in the Ram (40.3 inches).
Bed lengths range from the short (5.5 foot) to the medium (6.5 foot) to the long (eight foot), which can be paired with regular, Supercab or Supercrew bodies and trims that range from the base XL work truck up to the Platinum — Ford’s fanciest trim. The King Ranch “cowboy Cadillac” model is still available, too.
The bed features well lighting and lockable tie-downs, as well as an available sprayed-in bedliner.
Even the base trim XL comes standard with a 4.2 inch LCD display, but this can be upgraded to an eight inch “Productivity” touchscreen (bundled with Ford’s MyTouch interface) which in addition to GPS and off-roading info also includes coaching tips to maximize fuel efficiency. The F-truck also offers an optional 400 watt (110 V) power point for recharging tools, electric/remote locking for the tailgate and LED spotlights built into each outside rearview mirror. The turbo-Ecoboosted engines (2.7 liter and 3.5 liter) also come with “active” grille shutters that open — or close — to provide either greater cooling or improved aerodynamic efficiency.
This is a really nice truck, but I can’t quite grok all the fuss over the alloy body and the turbocharged mini-me engines. Aluminum is light — but steel is cheap and easy to fix.
I never quite broke 20 MPG (average) during a week-long test drive of an F-150 4×4 with the 2.7 liter “EcoBoost” engine. This is very decent for a full-size truck but it’s also still within the margin of error vs. the V8 Silverado and Ram 1500 (gas engine; with the diesel engine, the Ram does better) which I’ve also driven for a week each, under the same or very similar conditions. You might get more out of them — or maybe slightly worse. It’ll depend on how you drive. If you drive very gently — to make the most of the mini-me V6’s potential parsimony — you might crest 20 overall.
But no matter which truck you end up with, it’s not going to be a big difference.
So the question becomes: Can Ford convince buyers that a 2-3 MPG difference is worth the almost-certain higher repair (and so, insurance) costs that come along for the ride when you’ve got aluminum rather than steel body panels? Body shops will have to create separate work spaces to work on the F-truck, because when welding aluminum, it is very important to keep steel far, far away. This will be a hassle — and it will not be a free hassle, either. Some shops will probably not want to deal with it at all.
And these huffed-on little sixes? What hassles down the road will they bring?
Maybe none. I’ve spoken with Ford engineers and they tell impressive tales of durability torture tests, of running them flat out for hours on end, then tearing them apart to check for signs of duress and finding none. Great. I hope so. But the truth is we won’t really know what’ll happen until these things have been out in the world for ten, twelve years — working the dusty backroads of Texas, pulling trailers up and down the Rockies. We already know the burly V8s used in the GM and Ram trucks are powerful — and sturdy. They have an established track record. They are also simpler. Fewer components (no turbos, intercooler, related peripherals) means fewer potential things that could crap out on you and cost you money.
What was it Clint Eastwood said, all those years ago?
Do you feel lucky?
THE BOTTOM LINE
The awful truth is Ford’s doing what it must to keep the business alive — and it is likely GM and Dodge will follow suit in the coming years because even a 2-3 MPG difference — on paper, at least — matters when the government is demanding a 35.5 MPG average from every vehicle they sell, both cars and trucks.
Buy the Ford — and be an “early adopter.” Or play it safe (psychologically or actually) and buy one of the others, with a V8.
Well, while you still can.